While it would seem people have fallen too far on one side or the other of this issue – both Brad Childress and Tom Coughlin of the Giants were asked about it during Combine interviews – the larger point might be that the NFL has changed and fumbling is no longer tolerated.
The NFL of today is much different than the NFL of previous generations. Before free agency, organizations that were good were good every year and those that didn't draft well were slugs for years – only Detroit has continued that trend consistently into the modern era. One of the comparisons that was made was to Walter Payton and his fumbling woes early in his career. At the time Payton was a third-year pro, if a kicker hit 75 percent of his field goals, he went to the Pro Bowl. If a kicker makes good on 75 percent of field goals now, he's cut. The game has changed.
As hard as it might be to imagine, in an era of the NFL dominated by passing the running game has become more of a clock management tool than the focus of an offense. Why do you think every defensive player lists as a pre-game goal to stop the running game? It is intended to run the clock, wear down a defense and limit mistakes. Fumbling has never been accepted, but the greats get away with it because of their talent. Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett fumbled the ball 90 times each in their careers, yet that isn't their enduring legacy.
Where the problem arises with A.D. is that his fumbling was, as Ricky Williams would say, chronic. Williams has always had a reputation for fumbling and his four fumbles this year was better than only Matt Forte (6) and Peterson (7). Don't be misled about the numbers. Every running back in the league with 700 or more rushing yards (all 29 of them) had at least one fumble. However, only eight had more than three – Williams, Frank Gore, Knowshon Moreno, Beanie Wells and Laurence Maroney all had four. But none of those players, with the possible exception of Gore, is considered an elite back. When compared to the other top backs on 2009, Peterson's problems come into a clearer perspective.
Chris Johnson ran for 2,000 yards and touched the ball more than 400 times. He fumbled three times. Steven Jackson had 375 touches and two fumbles. Maurice Jones-Drew had 365 touches and two fumbles. Thomas Jones had 341 touches and two fumbles. Ray Rice had 332 touches and three fumbles. Cedric Benson had 328 touches and one fumble. Ryan Grant had 307 touches and one fumble. Peterson had 357 touches and seven fumbles.
Perhaps worse than anything was that six of his seven regular-season fumbles were lost. Those are the kind of game-changing plays that turn wins into losses and playoff games at home into playoff games on the road. There is every confidence that he will get his fumbling under control, perhaps pretend he's shaking hands with the ball and crush it like most first-time acquaintances. Comparing him to other Hall of Fame backs early in their careers is pointless. It was a different game then than it is now. The difference between being 6-10 and 10-6 is often much thinner than casual fans might think. In any game you can point to three or four plays that made the difference. A turnover is typically at least one of them.
Until A.D. proves his fumbling problem is a thing of the past, he, his teammates, his coaches and probably even his family will be asked about it. In the meantime, remember why so many of the all-time fumble leaders were great running backs. They were that good that they kept their jobs despite their fumbling – and won a lot of games along the way.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.